Speech by Hezbollah Secretary General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah on August 17, 2020, on the eve of the ‘Ashura ceremonies commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, largely canceled due to the Covid-19 epidemic.
In this speech, Nasrallah explained how these commemorations —usually massive and culminating in marches bringing together hundreds of thousands of people— would be held in Lebanon in view of the coronavirus epidemic, aggravated by the institutional vacuum caused by the resignation of the Diab government. As of August 17, Lebanon had 9,337 cases of Covid-19 and 105 deaths, that is 1,369 cases per million inhabitants and 15 deaths per million inhabitants; the USA had 5,610,361 cases and 173,662 deaths, that is 16,937 cases per million inhabitants and 524 deaths per million inhabitants; the UK had 319,197 cases and 41,369 deaths, that is 4,699 cases per million inhabitants and 609 deaths per million inhabitants; France had 219,029 cases and 30,429 deaths, that is 3,355 cases per million inhabitants and 466 deaths per million inhabitants.
As of December 25, 2020, Lebanon has 165,933 cases and 1,353 deaths, that is 24,364 cases per million inhabitants and 199 deaths per million inhabitants; the USA has 19,111,326 cases and 337,066 deaths, that is 57,574 cases per million inhabitants and 1,015 deaths per million inhabitants; the UK has 2,188,587 cases and 69,625 deaths, that is 32,157 cases per million inhabitants and 1,023 deaths per million inhabitants; France has 2,527,509 cases and 62,268 deaths, that is 38,680 cases per million inhabitants and 953 deaths per million inhabitants. One can compare the seriousness of the situation in each country, and the means committed & measures taken by each to fight against the epidemic. Let us remind that as for Hezbollah, all measures are implementend without any form of coercion, only through its moral authority towards its public & supporters.
The video above only captions the bold part of the transcript below. The other videos below are extracts of earlier Covid-19 related speeches.
[…] Every (shiite) person, every individual, every man and every woman has a religious duty to commemorate (‘Ashura). […] With regard to the assemblies & gatherings, each year, for example, we commemorate ‘Ashura (in many places, the main one being) at the complex of the Master of the Martyrs (large hall in the southern suburbs of Beirut), and we organize night vigils (majlis, held each evening of the first 10 days of the month of Muharram) there. Our brothers from the (Shiite) Amal movement do the same. In other places, in Tire, in Saïda, in Nabatiyeh, in Baalbeck, in Hermel, in different places, large gatherings are held (by us and others), (whole) villages organize such majlis, as well as the Shiite High Council, the various (Shiites) Muslim organizations, scholars, etc., all organize vigils in which the faithful participate (en masse). In previous years, as a rule, our main majlis held here and there could have 10,000 or 15,000 people each, going up to 20,000 on some nights. There are also majlis bringing together hundreds and thousands of people. But there are no restricted-audience majlis. All our majlis are large or even massive, and at least hundreds of people, and most of the time thousands of people participate. Every year, I follow this closely: every 24 hours, the figures are communicated to me, indicating the total number of majlis held in Lebanon, the approximate participation with the number of men and women, young and old people, etc.
The following question therefore arose to us and to our brothers of the (Shiite) Amal movement, then we transmitted it to other bodies and personalities among the Islamic scholars concerned: how are we going to do (to commemorate ‘Ashura this year)? Because if we organize large gatherings in the shade of the coronavirus and its spread, will we be able to ensure compliance with health & safety measures? Will we be able to enforce social distancing? What places would allow for it? If there are more participants than the number of chairs we will have prepared, or more than the chosen venue can accommodate while respecting social distance, what will we do? Will it be feasible to deny them access to the door (without tensions or exceptions)? We have discussed these issues a lot, internally within each movement (Amal and Hezbollah) and with each other, consulting with regions, towns and villages, to see if we would be able to do such a thing.
In this regard, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we considered two hypotheses. We seriously prepared for the hypothesis where we would decrease the number of majlis bringing people together: for example, in each village, we would only hold one night vigil, all together, and it would take place in the open air, in open spaces, not in husseiniyas, mosques or halls. We had planned to stay in the open, to prepare chairs installed so as to respect social distance, to bring masks, to work to have everything ready to welcome people in the best health & safety conditions, in particular in ensuring that the vigil is not long, etc. We have discussed all of these details. And quite frankly, we were willing to do that, and if we could, it seemed like the best choice. Because in the end, it would have allowed us to commemorate this event in the same way we have always done in our history, that is, through direct popular participation. But we agreed to wait before making our decision, until mid-Dhul-Hijja (month before Muharram), that is to say 10 or 15 days before the start of the commemorations, to see what is the country’s situation. If the (health) situation is reasonable and under control, then we would make this choice, namely to organize all the majlis in the open air. And concretely, in some regions, dedicated places have been prepared for this, tents have been set up, or rather all that is required (to accommodate the public) in these places, as well as the (health & safety) measures that could be taken, etc. We were moving strongly in that direction.
But a few days ago, when our joint Hezbollah-Amal statement was released (announcing the outright cancellation of the collective Ashura ceremonies this year), we reassessed the situation, as we already had done at regular intervals, until we came to this conclusion: the current health situation —and I will use this part of the speech to talk about the situation in the country— is that the coronavirus is out of control. Today, the number of new cases has exceeded 450. For a (small) country like Lebanon, that’s a huge number. And of course, it’s not just about today. For several days, the daily number of new cases has been 340, 350, 370, etc., always in the 300s. Before that, we reached 200, 270, 280. Today the Minister of Health [member of Hezbollah] raised the alarm, and what he was saying was very clear. All the officials in charge for health and medical issues have spoken, and as far as we are concerned, our information confirms that there is no exaggeration in these (alarmist) statements: on the contrary, it seems that they are very measured in their words so as not to cause panic. But the truth is, the Covid-19 epidemic in Lebanon is out of control. I do not speak of this question only in connection with our religious commemorations.
The Covid-19 epidemic in Lebanon is out of control; our hospitals are unable to cope, that is clear, and it is very difficult for new cases to access hospitals; there are shortages of drugs and medical equipment; of course, the fact that the government has resigned is also a problem, a weakness. And above all, the Lebanese do not respect (health & safety measures). We have all seen it. There are still weddings (celebrated with pomp), parties, the beaches are crowded, people bathe (en masse), there are demonstrations, and all this without the slightest respect for medical, health & safety measures. As a result, the coronavirus has spread widely. Today, in all regions, in all provinces, villages are put in lock-down, neighborhoods are isolated, buildings are evacuated. We have started to enter into (a health) disaster. We have always urged people to be vigilant and careful to avoid disaster, but now here we are, we are in the middle of it. When officials say they no longer have the capacity to control (the spread) of the virus, it means the situation is difficult, very difficult. No one is trying to scare anyone, not at all. (These are not exaggerations.) The real situation is far worse than I or anyone else can tell.
What is the solution? It is to return to compliance with health measures. The whole world enforces social distancing, even countries with much stronger health systems than we have, with larger and more developed hospitals than ours and more (competent) doctors and specialists than we have. Despite all this, they have not been able to bring the situation under control, they have a large number of cases and deaths, and they continue to suffer because they fail to (sufficiently) enforce social distancing, the wearing of masks and disinfection (of hands and surfaces). These are the three (main recommended) measures: social distancing, masks, disinfection. But when people do not respect (these health & safety measures, the catastrophe is inevitable). Imagine that we had a government, and that on the one hand the entire State apparatus, the whole Ministry of Health, all the hospitals, all the doctors & nurses in Lebanon, all health centers and institutions, if all these bodies cooperated and scrupulously applied all the required measures, but if on the other hand the people did not respect these measures and continued to live normally and to do as they wished, as if the country was not facing a catastrophe, naturally the disaster would only persist, grow and worsen, day after day.
I want to repeat what I said in the first days of the coronavirus: oh Lebanese, your humanitarian and moral duty, not even to mention religious obligation, as some may say they don’t care about anything related to religion, religious obligations and the Day of Judgment. No problem with that. Let’s just talk about your humanitarian duty, your moral duty! O my brother, if you don’t want to have mercy on yourself, at least have mercy on the people! Your family, your wife, your father, your mother, your children, your colleagues at work, your comrades at the university, the people you meet in the street, the ones you gather with!… I want to repeat that recklessness is a form of murder, to say the least! If you want to be affected by the coronavirus, no problem, be carefree! Isolate yourself, go climb a mountain (and do as you please)! Go to a place far from people! But as for mingling with people, in their wedding and mourning ceremonies, in their restaurants, their houses, their shops, their streets, (without respecting any health & safety measure), it is outrageous (and criminal)! It is contrary to morality and humanity! But unfortunately it does happen. Carelessness, neglect, indifference (are unfortunately very widespread)… But it is unjustifiable and intolerable, even from a humanitarian and moral point of view.
And with regard to the point of view of religious obligation, it is even clearer! Carelessness is prohibited! It is disobedience (to God)! This is one of the biggest sins! I repeat: this is one of the greatest sins! That we expose ourselves (if not) to death, (at least) to serious ills and after-effects, and then that we expose others to death… And why? Because we are skeptical (about the reality of the danger of Covid-19), because we are not in the mood, because we want to live carelessly… It is not tolerable for anyone to come and destroy our people, our environment, our country and our society for a mere matter of mood, because one is not convinced, or negligent in the face of responsibilities.
Faced with this situation, we realized that we were unable (to commemorate ‘Ashura as in previous years while strictly and efficiently enforcing health & safety measures). It’s that simple. I say it very clearly. Let no one be mistaken, let no one falsely claim that (our Shiite) religious authorities have banned gatherings to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, peace be upon him. The religious authorities have neither prohibited nor allowed (these commemorations). The religious authorities have prescribed the celebration of this commemoration, in all ways that do not contravene the required health & safety measures. Enforcing these measures is an (absolute) obligation. In countries where the coronavirus is not present (or remains under control), gatherings of 100,000 people can be held, no problem. The religious authorities did not prohibit this. But for countries where the coronavirus is circulating (a lot), anyone who wants to organize a majlis to which he will invite hundreds and thousands of people must take full religious responsibility. I speak now only of religion. (The organizer) must assume all religious responsibility.
As far as we are concerned, oh my brother, oh my sister, we in Hezbollah and the Amal movement, after discussion with the High Shiite Council, with our influential and respected scholars in Lebanon, and with the respected (religious) authorities, it appeared that we are incapable of assuming this responsibility. We (Hezbollah) organize majlis, hundreds of majlis, as well as the Amal movement. And it appeared to us that if we invite people to participate (physically) in these majlis, we will be unable to guarantee compliance with health rules. We are unable to guarantee respect for social distancing, we are unable to guarantee respect for wearing a mask. Not to mention the fact that (during these commemorations) people burst into tears, etc. You know the strong emotions and reactions that characterize these commemorations. We cannot stand at the front doors and deny newcomers access and tell them to please go home because we don’t have any more room. It appeared to us that concretely, practically, realistically, we were unable to guarantee all of this. And since as the organizer of the majlis, it is I who, on the Day of Judgment, will have to answer to God the Most High and the Exalted, when He tells me “Your religious obligation was to hold a majlis (only if you could enforce) these health guarantees, and you were unable to enforce them. Why did you organize this majlis (anyway)?” What will I say to Him? I won’t know what to answer. All the enthusiastic and passionate words (about the need to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein), the (necessary) loyalty to Imam Hussein (are irrelevant)… We are all loyal to Hussein, peace be upon him. What matters is what religious authorities say, and the limits they impose. It’s about people’s lives, about people’s (predictable) behavior, about people’s health… It’s not about anything else. I don’t want to get into a debate about it.
O my brother, we are people who respect the Taqlid [adherence to the edicts of a religious authority chosen for its highest level of science and justice; in contrast to the muqallid, the mujtahid for his part is capable of legislating himself in all areas of jurisprudence and does not need to refer to an authority; Sunnis must adhere to one of the 4 historical schools of jurisprudence —Hanafism, Shafeism, Malikism or Hanbalism— while the majority of Shiites must refer to a living authority] in matters of jurisprudence and religious rules. We have our well-known authorities. Much of us follow His Eminence Imam Khamenei, may God grant him a long life. A large part of the Lebanese follow the Grand Ayatollah Sayed al-Sistani, may God grant him a long life. Others follow authorities in Qom, Najaf or elsewhere. But the (overwhelming) majority of (Shia Muslims) are muqallid and (follow Khamenei or Sistani). As muqallid people, we have to see what our authorities say and do what they say. For (all the details of) prayer, fasting, Hajj, etc., I don’t just do it my way: I refer to the rules set out by my authority. In all things for which there are religious rules, I must refer to the religious authorities (to verify the conformity of my actions with the sunnah of the Prophet and the Sharia).
When our religious authorities declare that we have the duty to enforce health & safety measures, who determines these measures? Religious authorities? No! It is the specialists, the medical and health authorities who edict them. And all the specialists around the world say that we must respect social distancing, wear the mask and disinfect our hands, to say the least. There is consensus on these three points. If, for our part, we are unable to organize a majlis in which we can guarantee the scrupulous observance of these health & safety measures, how could we organize any majlis at all? While there are other ways (that do not require massive physical presence) to commemorate this occasion [such as wearing mourning clothes, putting up black flags in streets, shops & homes, and posters with slogans, making private commemorations in the family unit, using the media and social networks, etc., etc., etc.; these points were mentioned by Nasrallah in the first part of the speech]? If collective majlis were the only way to commemorate Karbala and the remembrance of Aba Abdillah al-Hussein, peace be upon him, and there was no other way to do it, maybe there would be matter for discussion. But in any case, it would be necessary to discuss it with the religious authorities, not with me, nor with the Amal movement or such or such scholar! We should discuss it with the (main) authorities! If such was the case, and of they had said “Since the only way to commemorate this event is mass gatherings, then do it, even if it must lead to the death of you all!”, we would reply “Aye, aye, Sir”, and do so with pleasure, we would be ready for that! But on such matters, it cannot be done as anyones sees fit.
I consider that my explanation is sufficiently clear, and that it is not necessary for me to add more. Because of what I just explained, this year we have agreed on this: all ways of commemorating ‘Ashura that do not require physical gatherings are permitted and recommended, no problem. This is why it is not acceptable for anyone to claim that Hezbollah and Amal canceled the ‘Ashura commemoration. It would be an act of oppression, a slander! All the other ways of commemoration (which I mentioned), of which my speech is an example [Nasrallah also gave live TV-broadcast religious speeches during the nights of ‘Ashura], we will do them, because they do not contravene the health obligations. But as far as holding majlis where there are physical gatherings, all the majlis that Hezbollah, Amal and other groups used to hold, we agreed to cancel them altogether this year. We have agreed to hold alternative majlis with speeches, funeral chants or the like exclusively from afar, and people will follow them from their homes (on TV, on the Internet, etc.).
Better yet, I want to suggest a different image. Today I call on all people, everywhere in Lebanon, those who are used to attending the majlis of Hezbollah, or those of the Amal movement or any other organization… We all have television channels, and we are going to broadcast majlis on our TV channels. At the times determined (by each group), I call the fathers, mothers and children, the father above all for whom it is the responsibility, to reunite the family at the determined time, whether it is 8:30 p.m., 9 p.m., 7 p.m., they must agree on which broadcasted majlis they’ll follow on TV or Internet, and then follow it every day, thus making a physical majlis at home, because the family unit is always assembled, and there is no health & safety measure to enforce in a family —unless someone is contaminated, in which case he must be isolated, etc. At the heart of the house, at the appointed time, the father and mother must gather the children, and they must all sit in front of the television, and listen to the broadcasted majlis (with the same attitude) as if they were physically present in the mosque, the husseiniya or the room where it is filmed, from start to finish. We must listen to the tale of Hussein’s martyrdom with attention and emotion, weep over the death of Hussein, peace be upon him, and the martyrs who fell by his side. If we do all of this, in the end we will have replaced the 300, 400 or 500 majalis that are usually held all over Lebanon, in towns, villages and neighborhoods, with 300,000 or 400,000 majlis (one per Shiite household), in this small country. Isn’t it? What is the problem with that? It’s still a majlis, but instead of bringing together hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people, it brings together 6, 8 or 10 household members who live together. It remains a majlis, and it is a (safe and dignified) way of commemorating ‘Ashura. (Let me remind you that) throughout history, most of the time Shiites were not allowed to make public commemorations as they are doing today. They did this in their homes, and hid (for fear of repression).
For a full account of Hussein’s martyrdom, see The Earliest Historical Account of the Tragedy of Karbala’
By doing this, by limiting the majlis to the family unit, we respect the duty of celebration, and we respect the duty of respect for health & safety measures. And we get the (divine) reward for participating in the majlis and (commemorating) the calamity of the Master of Martyrs (without the punishment we’d get for putting lives in danger). And it’s not just about saying that we have protected the Shiites (from the coronavirus) in this way. The Shiites are a (major) component of the country. If, for 10 days and 10 nights, we commemorated ‘Ashura in places gathering thousands and tens of thousands of people, and the coronavirus spread among us in a huge and dangerous way, we would destroy the Shiites and the rest of the Lebanese with us. (Protecting our country) is also a humanitarian, moral and religious responsibility. That’s why we made this decision (to cancel all commemorative gatherings). Some have said it was a courageous and daring decision, but there is neither courage nor daring in it. Everyone’s religious responsibility is clear, everyone must determine their duty according to their abilities, and do it! Because we will have to answer to God on the Day of Judgment.
Some may disagree with us, and do otherwise. This issue must be debated (to arrive at an outcome acceptable to all). But anyway, what I want to appeal to is that no one make this issue a point of contention. Every year, unfortunately, instead of devoting their majlis, their speeches and their interventions on social networks to the story of Karbala, its consequences and its lessons, a large part of the Shiites let themselves be drawn into an internal question subject to dissension, and set off for 10 days and 10 nights on a fierce dispute around this contentious point. And in my opinion, it is the foreign secret services which drag the Shiites on these (vain & fiery) disputes, in particular the British secret services, which are very effective on these questions [notably via their pawn Yasser al-Habib]. Americans do not understand much of these questions, but the British do have hundreds of years of experience. This year, please do not start internal disputes over the questions “Whether or not to physically gather to celebrate ‘Ashura this year”, “Who serves Imam Hussein and who has abandoned Imam Hussein”, etc., neither on television, nor in debates, nor on social networks. Such debates would be sterile and counterproductive. Let everyone determine their responsibility according to the health situation of their country and to their capacities, and do what they consider their duty (without attacking others or playing into the hands of the enemy). As far as we’re concerned, that’s what we do, (hoping we made the right choice), and we’ve explained our point of view. This is what I wanted to tell you this evening. […]
“Any amount counts, because a little money here and there, it’s like drops of water that can become rivers, seas or oceans…”